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Jerry Davich: Former med-flight patient meets his ‘angel in the air’

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Updated: August 25, 2013 10:20PM



For six years, Elliott Rauch has wanted to meet — and thank — Kelley Holdren, even though they first met on July 2, 2007.

Rauch, who was 17 at the time, has no memory of their encounter at 800 feet in the air during a helicopter flight to an adult trauma center.

From what Rauch has been told of that day — he has no memory of it — after attending summer school, he and his girlfriend at the time were driving to the beach along a rural road in Porter County.

He drove over a hill and wound up in the oncoming lane of traffic with another vehicle approaching, his former girlfriend has since told him.

“I swerved and crashed into a tree doing 60 miles per hour-plus,” the Westville man told Holdren, chief flight nurse for the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, or UCAN.

UCAN is the air medical service for the University of Chicago Medicine, which uses a 1989 twin-engine helicopter to treat and transport the sickest and most complex trauma patients in the Chicago metro area, including Northwest Indiana.

Rauch was a patient briefly at the old Porter Hospital in Valparaiso until his father argued for more urgent care at another medical facility. UCAN was called and a flight team, including Holdren, arrived to transport him to Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill.

Rauch suffered a closed head injury and other injuries, including a broken femur bone in his leg and bleeding and swelling on the brain. His father worried that he wouldn’t fit inside the cramped chopper because he had a splint on his broken leg, but he did.

During the chopper flight, Holdren remembers injecting Rauch with Mannitol, a drug used to temporarily reduce acutely raised cranial pressure after head trauma, such as what Rauch suffered.

“It bought us time, it bought him time,” Holdren recalled.

It bought Rauch time to eventually resume his life, pick up the jagged pieces from that day, and attempting to put back together the puzzle called his life. He’s still doing so, struggling with memory problems, relationship issues, and other fogginess.

Last Monday, Rauch’s father showed him my column where I shadowed for a day the UCAN medical chopper program, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year. Rauch read that column and he felt compelled to contact me.

“Your column really caught my attention,” he wrote to me via email. “I really would like to reach out to the crew that saved my life. I think it’s finally time I actually make the effort to seek out these true heroes. It’s been on my mind for six years.”

“Is there any way you could help me get in touch with someone at UCAN,” he wrote. “Jerry, it would mean a lot to me, and I’m truly ready to meet the people who saved my life. I would be grateful beyond words.”

I contacted UCAN through the organization’s administrator, Holdren, a mother of two from Dyer who I profiled in a previous column. She immediately looked up Rauch’s case in her computer system to see which UCAN crew members worked that day.

“I just got off the phone with dispatch. I was the nurse,” Holdren told me with a laugh, noting that the UCAN pilot that day has retired and the attending doctor has moved on.

I replied to Rauch to see if he would like to meet Holdren at the UCAN office at the University of Chicago Medicine. He jumped at the chance. (Watch a video of their meeting at www.post-trib.com.)

“I never thought I would ever meet her or anyone from the helicopter crew,” he told me.

On Wednesday morning, they finally met and I joined them to show the uncommon encounter between the UCAN crew and one of its patients, especially from years ago.

“We rarely see patients afterward, especially ones who make an effort to see us and thank us,” Holdren told me.

Rauch was a bit shy and awkward when he met Holdren, who took him to the hospital’s rooftop heliport to see the UCAN chopper that transported him to the adult trauma center.

“We’ve nicknamed her Bessie,” Holdren told Rauch while showing him where his gurney was positioned inside the chopper that day.

“You were there, I sat there, and the doctor was there,” she told him.

The flight time from the old Porter Hospital in Valparaiso to Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. was less than 15 minutes, a brief time slot in Rauch’s lengthy road to recovery. But a critical one, even though he still remembers nothing about it.

Holdren told him, “We did our job well if you don’t remember us or your flight. I’ve had patients talk to me during the entire flight, and then not remember me at all later. It’s the body’s way of dealing with traumatic situations.”

Before his car crash in 2007, Rauch’s mother had to be airlifted by the UCAN medical chopper to an Illinois hospital after suffering an aneurism, he told Holdren.

Holdren remembers Rauch’s father telling her exactly that when she prepared his then teenage son for air transport.

There’s an industry motto for medical choppers that sums up well such scenarios: “They’re the best thing to happen on the worst day of someone’s life.”

Holdren downplayed any “angels in the air” hyperbole, saying, “We’re just a fancy ride.”

“It’s so nice to meet someone from that crew whom was instrumental in saving my life,” Rauch told Holdren, showing his head scars from the car crash.

“Battle wounds,” Holdren said with a smile.

Rauch said he found the closure he has sought for six years since the crash, and he and Holdren parted ways with a hug. But not before Holdren had a question for Rauch.

“Were you wearing a seatbelt that day?” she asked.

No, he replied.

“In nine years, I’ve transported only one person who was buckled up, and that was for precautionary reasons,” Holdren told Rauch. “Every other person I have picked for a flight was not buckled in.”

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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